FLINT, Mich. —
She would sneak through one of the back doors, a shadowy figure trying to meld into the brittle concrete walls, drawn by curiosity to the bare-bones gym down the street and its makeshift blood-stained ring squatted diagonally across the cracked basement floor of the Berston Field House.
Young children interspersed with teenagers would be shadowboxing in front of the large mirror that consumes a far wall, and others would be hitting the various heavybags hanging from the creaky wooden rafters. Whomp! Whomp! Whomp! The tiny place would rattle each time a gloved fist struck a swinging bag — and Claressa Shields' eyes would flare open in wide wonder at everything surrounding her.
It was too magnetic. Too enthralling. Too engrossing to turn away. Shields had to do it. She had to find out more. She'd nag her father, Clarence, a former amateur fighter known as "Cannonball" who was vehemently against his 11-year-old daughter stepping into a gym filled with boys who had no qualms about punching his little girl in the nose.
So Shields would keep sneaking down Saginaw Street in Flint and find her way into Berston. She would go down the steps and slip through one of the side doors. She did it, until one day, her father had enough and took her down there himself — introducing her to Jason Crutchfield.
If there was an epiphany in Shields' young life, that was it. She always could look back on that day, the time she was formally introduced to boxing. The day that changed everything for a girl once filled with rage and anger over her domestic plight, to now a 17-year-old senior at Northwestern (Flint, Mich.)
making history as the first of three American women to represent her country on the U.S. Olympic boxing team.
Shields is the youngest Olympic boxer since 16-year-old Davey Armstrong made the 1972 team that competed at the Munich Olympics. A 165-pound middleweight, she will join flyweight Marlen Esparza and lightweight Queen Underwood in London for the 2012 Olympiad, which begin Friday.
Her path there wasn't an easy one. In her first international competition in April at the Continental Championships in Canada, Shields crushed reigning world champion Roseli Feitosa of Brazil, and handily defeated Canadian Mary Spencer, a three-time world champion, by 27-14 decision. Her amateur record is a daunting 26-1, with her lone loss a 14-8 setback to Great Britain's Savannah Marshall in the second round of May's World Amateur Championships in China.
The 5-foot-11 Shields is fearless, gregarious, radiant, charismatic, relentless and above all aware of the history she is making. She'll be the youngest female boxer in the field. Marshall is 21. Spencer is 27. Feitosa is 23.
Before they step into the ring, they'll primp and braid their hair as if readying for a commercial shoot. Shields could care less. Her hair, so what? Makeup, what's makeup? Just point her in a direction and she's good.
Shields shocked everyone, with the exception of possibly herself and Crutchfield, when she devoured Spencer. At the time, Spencer was the No. 1 female amateur middleweight in the world. A three-time world champion, Spencer was the fighter who most felt would be a gold-medal favorite in London.
Shields changed all of that, while announcing herself as a world player.
"I remember everyone cheering for her, and Spencer being announced as this three-time world champion and all of that other stuff, and here I am," Shields said with a laugh. "I remember someone who saw the fight on TV, and underneath my name on the screen, it said, ‘Relative unknown.' I was like ‘What?' That was funny. That told me I was a good fighter when I beat Spencer. I know that shocked a lot of people, and sometimes, I shock myself."
Shields isn't an international unknown anymore. But can she do it? Can she win a gold medal?
"Claressa is very capable of doing it," said Crutchfield, who has been Shields' coach since she first walked into Berston. "I'll accept a silver or bronze, but we want the gold. It depends on the draw and who we're going to open with. Age and experience doesn't matter to Claressa. She's faced all of the best in the world already, she's been there, so she won't see anything she hasn't seen before. She'll get in there against someone and it's like she's the one teaching. She's a fast starter."
Video by Christopher Magnuson/Edited by Ryan Escobar/Cover photo by Paul DiSilvo